Sometimes the simplest questions to ask are the hardest to answer.
For years, researchers and conservationists didn't know where many Piping Plovers--tiny sand-colored birds that landed on the endangered species list in 1986--spent their winters. The question wasn't just academic. Piping Plovers spend about eight months of their lives away from their nesting grounds, and must survive migration and wintering in order to return to breed the following summer. Knowing what places they use in the winter is the first step to protecting them year-round.
Tantalizing reports hinted that there might be good numbers of Piping Plovers wintering in the Bahamas. So, in 2011, Audubon helped to lead a multi-agency team to survey the island nation for the year's International Piping Plover Census. The count turned up 1,075 Piping Plovers, about 13% of the world's population, and pointed us toward additional survey and conservation work. As part of that ongoing effort, Audubon staff from across the Atlantic Flyway returned to the Bahamas to survey additional sites this January and February. They were joined by staff from the Bahamas National Trust and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, making the work again a true partnership.
Biologists from Audubon Connecticut, Audubon Florida, Audubon New York, Audubon North Carolina, and Audubon Vermont took turns visiting Andros, Crooked and Acklins, Grand Bahama and Long Island. And I was one of the luck participants! The goal of the surveys was to check new sites that hadn't been surveyed yet for Piping Plovers and other species of shorebirds, and assess whether they should be prioritized for inclusion in the upcoming 2016 International Census.
Kerri Dikun (Audubon New York), Denny Moore (Bahamas National Trust), and Philip Cartwright (Long Island fishing guide) put a flock of 18 Piping Plovers in their scopes. By Lindsay Addison
Over 25 new sites were visited, and a new high count of Piping Plovers was recorded for Long Island and new plover sites were uncovered on Grand Bahama. Large flocks of additional species were also recorded, including 900 Sandwich Terns on West Andros and almost 300 Least Sandpipers on Grand Bahama.
For me, the best part of the experience was getting to work with colleagues from across Audubon's Atlantic Flyway team. Kerri Dikun from Long Island, New York, was assigned to canvas the Long Island in the Bahamas--no coincidence. We met up with Denny Moore of Bahamas National Trust and Philip Cartwright, a local bonefish guide, to explore the extensive system of cays (small islands) and flats west of Deadman's Cay, one of the many small settlements that run the length of Long Island. No survey team had been able to spend enough time to really dig into the area, and we were able to search sandy beaches, mangrove creeks and large mudflats for two days, finding 33 Piping Plovers in all, including two banded birds. Kerri and I were also enchanted with the sight of Short-billed Dowitchers, another species of shorebird, roosting in red mangroves--in the U.S. these birds wouldn't be caught dead in a tree!
After Long Island, Kerri and I island-hopped to Andros, where we met up with Marianne Korosy from Audubon Florida and Tavares Thompson of the Bahamas National Trust. We spent four days exploring the middle of Andros. We did not find as much suitable Piping Plover habitat--much of the area is comprised of stunted mangrove forests, great for young fish and other marine life, but not as attractive to shorebirds. But in a few pockets we turned up good numbers, including a flock of 38 plovers tucked away in an idyllic corner of Big Wood Cay.
Also in the Big Wood Cay area we stumbled across a Reddish Egret's nest containing two growing chicks, one a light morph and one a dark morph. Their watchful parent gave us the stink eye until we pulled the boat away. By now the chicks will be large enough to have clambered out of their nest and be starting to stretch their wings.
We capped our time on Andros by accompanying Matt Jeffery, deputy director of Audubon's International Alliances Program, and members of Audubon's and Bahamas National Trust's boards and senior staff on an excursion to the Joulter Cays--winter home to the largest known concentration of Piping Plovers in the Bahamas. There, we enjoyed sharing the sight of more than a thousand shorebirds, including over 100 Piping Plovers with the group.
Another highlight was catching up with some banded Piping Plovers and learning from where they had migrated. It's believed that most of the Piping Plovers wintering in the Bahamas are from the Atlantic coast breeding population--smaller numbers hail from the Great Lakes and Great Plains. The banded birds we found on Andros and Long Island bear that out. On a remote bonefish flat west of Long Island we found two little New Jersey breeders feeding among a flock of 17 Piping Plovers and more than 150 Least and Western Sandpipers. Of the 11 banded birds we saw on Andros, five nest in Massachusetts, two were from New Jersey, and one each from Rhode Island, Maryland and New York. The eleventh bird was a Great Lakes plover. I wonder what she'll be thinking as she wings her way back to Michigan over mountains and rolling hills--landscapes as foreign as possible for a species that clings to strips of sand along coastlines.
Following the field work, two exciting developments occurred indoors. First, the Bahamas National Trust, the NGO tasked with managing the nation's national parks, renewed its fifty-plus year relationship with Audubon by signing a memorandum of understanding pledging the two organizations to work together for bird and other environmental conservation. Then, the Bahamas National Trust proposed to make the Joulter Cays the Bahamas' newest national park, a move that would not only protect 4% of the Piping Plover population, along with 2% of wintering Short-billed Dowitchers and thousands of other species of shorebirds, but also preserve the area for traditional use by local fishermen.
All of this would not have been possible without first asking that simple, hard question:
Where are Piping Plovers in the winter?